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HONG KONG – When Hong Kong police arrested Jimmy Lai, a belligerent newspaper publisher, last year, they appeared to be following a longtime government critic. On Thursday, the city authorities sent a message to the rest of the media industry: be careful what you write.
Hundreds of police officers raided the editorial staff of Mr. Lais defiantly pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, examined journalists’ computers, arrested top editors, banned company accounts and warned readers not to post some of their articles online.
The raid and new restrictions were the most aggressive application to date of Hong Kong’s comprehensive national security law, imposed on a media company by Beijing last year, and could jeopardize the newspaper’s survival. The operation was a sharp escalation of the authorities’ mounting frontal attack on media in Hong Kong, a former British colony once known for its vibrant media scene and extensive protection of free expression.
Pressure on Apple Daily had grown for months as officials and pro-Beijing voices selected the newspaper for criticism.
“But today’s actions are still shocking,” said Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer in journalism at City, University of London who previously worked for Hong Kong media companies, pointing out the raid and computer seizure, among other things. “We have to remember that until recently, a free press in Hong Kong was considered ‘normal’.”
In the past few months the government has tried to curb the media. It has tried to overtake a public broadcaster known for its investigative work, replace editors and pull programs. Senior police officers have warned journalists that they may be investigated for reporting “fake news”. A court in April convicted a journalist of false information for a news report critical of the police.
Police said they had arrested five executives and editors from Apple Daily and its parent company Next Digital on suspicion of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
Apple Daily editor-in-chief Ryan Law was handcuffed from his apartment. Trading in Next Digital shares was suspended in Hong Kong on Thursday morning following news of the arrests.
With its accounts frozen, Apple Daily would struggle to pay its 700 or so employees, said Mark Simon, an adviser to Mr Lai, the newspaper’s founder, who is in jail for participating in illegal protests, to silence him.
“It’s unbelievably difficult for us. I don’t know what’s going to happen, ”said Mr Simon. “I think they will keep coming and coming.”
Footage broadcast by Apple Daily reporters showed police officers carting suitcases away from Next Digital headquarters. A photo posted on his Instagram account by Apple Daily showed officials ransacking files on reporters’ computers. After the photo was taken, journalists were forced out of the crime scene newsroom.
Police said a search warrant authorized police to search and seize journalistic material.
Last year, Apple Daily journalists broadcast the police raid live from the editorial level. But on Thursday, police restricted employees’ access to certain floors of the building and warned them to turn off their cameras.
Police said an investigation found that more than 30 Apple Daily articles urged overseas sanctions to be imposed on Hong Kong and China. The United States has imposed sanctions on officials in Hong Kong and China for trying to rein in the city. According to the Security Act, demands for such sanctions are deemed to be agreements with foreign countries. Mr. Lai, the newspaper’s founder, also sees himself separately charged under national security law for allegedly calling for international sanctions against Hong Kong.
“We have very strong evidence that the articles in question play a crucial role in the overall plot of conspiracy, providing foreign or foreign institutions with talking points to impose sanctions,” said Li Kwai-wah, a chief commissioner of the national police force at a press conference.
Mr. Li also warned the public not to share Apple Daily articles. “As a law enforcement officer, I would advise you not to arouse suspicion,” he said. Which articles did he not specify?
Hong Kong’s security minister, John Lee, denied the raid and arrests would affect press freedom in the city and warned journalists to distance themselves from Apple Daily.
“This action has nothing to do with normal journalistic work,” he said. “It targets the alleged use of journalism as a tool to commit acts that endanger national security. Ordinary journalists are different from them. Don’t get involved with them and keep your distance from them. “
The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, Beijing’s official arm in Hong Kong, called the arrests and asset freezes fair and made it clear that freedom of expression, enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution, has limits.
“There are no rights and freedoms without borders. Nobody can harm the bottom line of national security, ”the bureau said in a statement.
The government’s allegations against Apple Daily sparked alarms among media freedom advocates in the city.
“We just cannot see that articles or reports circulated by the news media pose a threat to national security,” said Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. “It raises concerns that language can be viewed as an act and is vulnerable to national security law.”
In addition to Mr. Law, the editor-in-chief, executives arrested also included Next’s general manager, Cheung Kim-hung, and Tat Kuen-chow, Next’s general manager. Among the editors arrested were Cheung Chi-wai, the editor-in-chief, and Chan Puiman, the deputy editor-in-chief.
Authorities have frozen Apple Daily and affiliate accounts worth around $ 2.3 million.
Mr. Lai and his newspaper have long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, and Beijing has targeted him as one of its leading enemies in the area.
Hong Kong Police Chief Chris Tang recognized Apple Daily in April for coverage of a police-hosted national security event and warned the authorities would investigate news outlets believed to be a national security threat.
Despite mounting pressure on Apple Daily, journalists vowed to get back to work. “As difficult as the current circumstances may be, we will continue our work with the aim of publishing our papers as usual tomorrow,” wrote the Next Media Trade Union in a statement.
But the newspaper admitted that their fate was out of their hands. “We are strangers and speechless in Hong Kong today,” the Apple Daily said in a letter to its readers posted on its website. “It seems we are powerless to deal with it and it is difficult to stop the regime from doing anything it wants.”